From 2007-2013, my “heavy” leg day exercises were done with the Smith and leg press machines. I trained hard, lifted heavy, but over that six-year period, all I got were big, shapeless legs. This made me jealous of other women who had well-developed, shapely legs. Diet aside, my body fat percentage never reached above 16%, so my muscles were not washed out by fat. I put on muscle, just not in the way I hoped. This was especially frustrating because I was a personal trainer, and I believed I understood what was necessary to get my dream legs, and I thought I was doing those things. The root of my problem was my emphasis on bodybuilding-style training: machine and isolation-focused exercises, aesthetic training rather than athletic training. In 2014, I started listening to a professional strength coach podcast and learned about functional, unilateral, and “athletic” exercises — training for movement, not for posing on a stage.
The primary principle of functional athletic training is mastering multi-directional movement through space, forcing the muscles to work synergistically to execute a movement. For strength, these coaches ditch machines (or use them very minimally and often for injury recovery, not for muscle development). They laugh at leg extension machines, Smiths, and leg presses. Instead, they emphasize pushing the body through open space with free-weight barbell squats, lunges, and other athletic movements. The muscle synergy required to perform these exercises unaided by a machine intensely stimulates muscles for maximum growth.
Free weight exercises (compound exercises) burn more calories than isolation movements. This is because, as opposed to isolating one muscle group, compound exercises force multiple muscle groups to work together.
I’m not trying to discourage anyone from using machines. Machine exercises can be helpful for people who have injuries, the elderly, and those who have built a good overall physique and only wish to perfect a specific muscle group (by the way, this can create muscle imbalances and lead to injury). If you currently have machine dependence, try doing barbell squats without the Smith or walking lunges instead of stationary lunges, and note the change in stress placed on your body. When unaided by machines, your body is forced to balance as well as carry any weights you’re holding or lifting through free space. You might have to lower the weight you’re lifting by a few pounds — or ten or more — but your body will be working harder with less poundage. In time, you should notice positive adaptations. I surely did.
Since making the change from machine-assisted exercise to relying solely on my true strength to execute a movement, I have not gone back. The benefits are too great, aesthetically and athletically. I discovered muscle imbalances I developed in my years of bodybuilding and changed a lot of my training to correct them. Thankfully, I caught this mistake (rooted in an obsession with aesthetics training) before those imbalances led to injuries.
Society’s understanding of fitness is always evolving, as it should. Since I’ve adopted athletic and functional training, I’ve noticed that trend seems to be growing. Bodybuilding.com, a site that once focused primarily on traditional bodybuilding training techniques, now offers calisthenic, bodyweight, and athletic training options. A functional bodybuilding community is developing, and given my experience, it’s a welcome and promising change.
Resources on Functional and Athletic Training
What is Functional Training: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/functional-fitness/art-20047680
A Handy Functional Bodybuilding IG Page: https://www.instagram.com/functional.bodybuilding/?hl=en
As an athlete for over 19 years and a broke single mom for most of that time, I created brokesinglemomfitness.com, now LLAFIT.com, to aid anyone who believes the road to fitness requires a lot of cash or time. In reality, the way to fitness is paved with knowledge and firm principles; teaching readers how to master both is the goal of this site. LLAFIT – Lifelong Affordable Fitness